Please open your textbooks to the Gospels

HOUSTON – When the school board in Odessa, a West Texas oil town, voted unanimously in April to add an elective Bible study course to the 2006 high school curriculum, some parents dropped to their knees in prayerful thanks that God would be returned to the classroom, while others assailed it as an effort to instill religious training in the public schools.

Hundreds of miles away, leaders of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools notched another victory. The council, a religious advocacy group based in Greensboro, North Carolina, has been pressing a 12-year campaign to get school boards across the United States to accept its Bible curriculum.

The council calls its course a nonsectarian historical and literary survey class within constitutional guidelines requiring the separation of church and state.

But a growing chorus of critics says the course, taught by local teachers trained by the council, conceals a religious agenda. The critics say it ignores evolution in favor of creationism and gives credence to dubious assertions that the Constitution is based on the Scriptures and that “documented research through NASA” backs the biblical account of the sun standing still.

On Monday, the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group for religious freedom, was scheduled to release a study that finds the national council’s course to be “an error-riddled Bible curriculum that attempts to persuade students and teachers to adopt views that are held primarily within conservative Protestant circles.”

The dispute has made the curriculum, which the national council says is used by more than 175,000 students in 312 school districts in 37 states, the latest flash point in the continuing culture wars over religious influences in the public domain. The national council says its course is the only one offered nationwide. Another organization, the Bible Literacy Project, supported by a broad range of religious groups, expects to release its own textbook in September.

Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum, which published “The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide” five years ago, said that “the distinction is between teaching the Bible and teaching about the Bible – it has to be taught academically, not devotionally.” The First Amendment to the Constitution establishes the separation of church and state.

The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools says its course “is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of students.”

“The central approach of the class,” it says, “is simply to study the Bible as a foundation document of society, and that approach is altogether appropriate in a comprehensive program of secular education.”

Elizabeth Ridenour, a commercial real estate broker who said she formed the nonprofit organization in 1993 after deciding that she had long been “duped” into believing the Bible could not be taught in public schools, said the course stayed within legal limits.

“Our teachers are not to say, ‘This is the truth,’ or that the Bible is infallible,” she said. “They are to say, ‘This is what the Bible says; draw your own conclusions.”‘

But in Odessa, where the school board has not decided on a curriculum, a parent said he found the course’s syllabus unacceptably sectarian. He has been waging his own campaign for additional information on where it is being taught.

“Someone is being disingenuous; I’d like to know who,” said the parent, David Newman, an associate professor of English at Odessa College who has made a page-by-page analysis of the 270-page syllabus and sent e-mail messages to nearly all 1,034 school districts in Texas.

The Texas Freedom Network, which commissioned its study after the vote in Odessa, is sharp in its criticism.

“As many as 52 Texas public school districts and 1,000 high schools across the country are using an aggressively marketed, blatantly sectarian Bible curriculum that interferes with the freedom of all families to pass on their own religious values to their children,” the network said.

In one teaching unit, students are told, “Throughout most of the last 2,000 years, the majority of men living in the Western world have accepted the statements of the Scriptures as genuine” – words taken from the Web site of Grant Jeffrey Ministries’ Prophecy on Line.

The national council’s efforts are endorsed by the Center for Reclaiming America, the Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council, among others. But Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other groups have warned school districts against using the curriculum because of constitutional concerns.

Mike Johnson, a lawyer for the national council, cited a 1999 legal opinion by four lawyers calling the course permissible under constitutional guidelines.

Apart from a showcase school in Brady, Texas, the council does not disclose the schools using its course because it wants to spare them news media inquiries, said Ridenour, the real estate broker. Only a summary of the course is available on the Internet, and printed copies cost $150.

A highly critical article in The Journal of Law and Education in 2003 said the course “suffers from a number of constitutional infirmities” and “fails to present the Bible in the objective manner required.” The journal said that even supplementary materials were heavily slanted toward sectarian organizations; 83 percent of the books and articles recommended had strong ties to sectarian organizations, 60 percent had ties to Protestant organizations, and 53 percent had ties to conservative Protestant organizations, it said.

Among those included are books by David Barton, who is on the council’s advisory board and the vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party and who favors “biblical inerrancy,” said William Martin, a Rice University historian and the author of the book “With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America.”

Ridenour said the course was revised six months ago. But the freedom network’s study concludes that the curriculum’s section on science teaches creationism with no mention of evolution.

The course’s broad statements about the Bible being the blueprint for the country are askew, said Haynes of the Freedom Forum, part of a nonpartisan ecumenical group promoting the Bible Literacy Project textbook.

“If the Bible is a blueprint for the Constitution,” he said, “I guess they haven’t read it,” referring to the Constitution.

The battle of the Bible course is not over in Odessa, where John Waggoner, a real estate appraiser, presented petitions with 6,000 signatures in support of the Bible class to the school board of Ector County at its April meeting. The assistant superintendent, Raymond Starnes, said he wanted to examine the Bible Literacy Project’s textbook before recommending one for the 2006 school year.

Ralph Blumenthal reported from Houston for this article, and Barbara Novovitch from Odessa, Texas.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, via The International Herald Tribune, USA
Aug 2, 2005
Ralph Blumenthal and Barbara Novovitch

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 2, 2005.
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